Bittersweet … A Tale of Two Sisters

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

The Sisters’ Shame
We were two daughters of one race;
She was the fairest in the face.
    The wind is blowing in turret and tree.
They were together, and she fell;
Therefore revenge became me well.
    O, the earl was fair to see!

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

bittersweetA lot of legends of magic, revenge and sorcery begin with two sisters. Sometimes they are friends.  Sometimes they are rivals.  But an unspoken message in many stories is, “Don’t pick the wrong one!” Increasingly, North American gardeners are finding themselves faced with this dilemma.  The choice may be between a native plant and its sometimes seductive, sometimes invasive sister, introduced from elsewhere.

Bittersweet gives us such a story. American bittersweet, Celustrus scandens, is seen everywhere this time of year in wreaths and dried arrangements. It has tiny vivid orange fruits and arils, each surrounded by an arched areola. The fruit is produced on long, twining stems. During the gray days of fall and winter, Bittersweet is a versatile, reliable provider of warm color in the home.

It is poisonous. At least to people, dogs and cats.  Birds and squirrels may eat the berries unharmed.  Some indigenous American tribes have made medicinal preparations from parts of the plants, which reputedly act to purge the body in every possible way.

American bittersweet, while a North American native, is not actually “true” bittersweet. That attribute was already snagged by its European cousin, “bittersweet nightshade” (Solanum dulcamara).  Yes.  Nightshade.

American bittersweet grows freely throughout most of the eastern two thirds of the United States.  It is a reliable indicator of a wetland habitat. A new variety of American bittersweet is American Revolution bittersweet vine (Celastrus scandens ‘Bailumn’), more free flowering than the wild plant, and with much larger fruit.

The related Chinese or oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is becoming more common than American bittersweet, and is spreading throughout the same geographical range. Both have seeds that are widely spread by bird, although Chinese bittersweet also propagates by rhizomes. The plants are very similar in appearance, although the Chinese bittersweet carries her flowers all along the vine, whereas the American bittersweet flowers only at the tips. Both varieties grow on long (15 to 20 feet), trailing and climbing deciduous vines, which use other neighboring plants for support.  Both may girdle and kill the supporting plant, but that is more often the case with Chinese bittersweet.  Her lavish growth is more likely to make her an aggressive and fatal neighbor. That is why the Chinese bittersweet is considered invasive, while the native bittersweet is not. Chinese bittersweet’s lush growth also hogs the light, and kills neighboring plants by cloaking them in darkness.

 Humans have been instrumental in spreading the reach of Chinese bittersweet.  Her more lavish growth and flowering, and her seeds’ greater attractiveness to birds, have made her a popular introduction.  Chinese bittersweet has been planted in great numbers to control roadside erosion. And all of those wreaths and centerpieces eventually get dusty and start dropping (poisonous) bits around the house.  The next stop is the landfill…where the new plants prosper.

Medical disclaimer

The American bittersweet is, therefore, quickly becoming an endangered plant, while the Chinese bittersweet is sometimes labeled a noxious pest. Its wanted poster is right up there with Japanese knotweed.  Even serene gardeners start considering the nuclear option: RoundUp. And that’s sinister, indeed. More bitter than bittersweet.

Moral of the story: Plant native.

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